May I make a confession? Just between you and me? At one point in my life, I wasn’t so much into the whole right-to-keep-and-bear-arms thing. I thought the Bill of Rights was important, of course, and thought my rights were important. But I was perfectly willing to admit that perhaps limits to those rights were just as important for the greater good . . .
I don’t recall what I specifically thought about the Clinton Assault Weapons Ban. I wasn’t long out of high school at the time, and so had other things on my mind, I suppose. If you’d asked me at the time, I’d probably have said something along the lines of, “Hey, I don’t think restricting possession of these scary-looking black rifles or those large clips is a big deal, as long as people can still own other guns.”
Yep, I probably would’ve said “clips” back then.
Obviously, I don’t hold those views anymore. Becoming a student of both history and the law (along with a little harsh experience with the nature of humanity) injected a healthy dose of skepticism about such laws and the people who push them. Seeing how things fit together historically and philosophically, along with an improved understanding of Constitutional law, and a little bit of rational self-interest, my position on the subject ‘evolved’, shall we say?
Thanks to my own experience, I’m perfectly open to the idea of people changing their minds — of seeing the light and choosing a different path. I did it multiple times since becoming an adult. If I didn’t think people had the ability to do it, I wouldn’t spend part of my time writing.
All of that is why I didn’t immediately reject out of hand the program that Richmond, California recently started aimed at bringing down violent crime by finding the people most likely to commit violent crimes and…giving them money.
Richmond, California, a city also with a population of about 100,000, launched a program that’s brought down homicide rates by 76 percent since 2007….
“We’ve seen a 76 percent reduction in firearm related homicide, and a 69 percent reduction in firearm assaults,” said DeVone Boggan in a phone interview. Boggan is the director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety in Richmond. “That’s the kind of work that transforms a community,” he said.
One piece of the program includes finding out who are the city’s most dangerous individuals, and handing them cash as an incentive to stop pulling the trigger.
The deal: if they uphold a six-month commitment of engaging with their mentors, making progress with life goals, and staying out of trouble, then they can earn $1,000 dollars a month for up to nine months.
Initially, Richmond’s City Council rejected the program, and the funds were raised through private dollars. Over five years, the program paid out on average $67,000 per year….
“If you’re tired of being tired of this epidemic in your city and your community, you better do something different. I’d recommend leaders take a look at it, I’d recommend them call me,” Boggan said….
The program in Richmond operates under the “Office of Neighborhood Safety,” a branch specifically created to operate this program. It is not law enforcement.
A huge part of the program employs a carefully selected outreach team of six mentors. They are assigned to people who are considered the city’s “most lethal,” and the mentors touch base with them every day, 12-18 hours per week, over the program’s entire 18 months.
“When these young men generate within themselves a greater desire to live, they begin to make different, better, healthier decisions. Their lives begin to change. And those create the conditions that help to transform a city,” Boggan said.
Boggan explained in a story that aired on This American Life earlier this year that his ‘aha’ moment in designing this program came when he was in a meeting with police officers who explained to him that they believed that seventeen guys were responsible for 70% of the shootings in the city of Richmond.
Devone Boggan: “17 people. And I’ll tell you, I almost flipped out of my chair. Cause I was like, 17 people? That’s nothing.”
Boggan realized that if they could reach just those 17 guys and get them to change, they could really make a dent in the problem. He asked the police for a list of those 17 names. He did his own research and added more names. To get on that list, Boggan said, you basically had to have shot someone.
Next, he put together a team of street outreach workers. All of them were from Richmond. Most had served time in prison themselves. And he sent them out to get to know the guys on the list and deliver this message– come to a meeting and we will provide you with a lifestyle alternative that could change your life for the good. Boggan had no idea if any of them would come.
The meeting was scheduled three months later. By that time, a couple of guys on the list were dead. One was in jail. Four others weren’t interested. But the rest of the guys agreed. 21 guys….
That first meeting was five years ago. And since then, they’ve done it every 18 months with a new group….
Over the past five years, 68 guys have gone through the ONS fellowship program. How did they do? Four are dead. A few others are in prison. But of the 68, 43 have completed their goals and graduated. But even more important than those numbers, the overwhelming majority of the guys who have gone through the program– whether they graduated or not– have had no new arrests or charges for gun-related activities.
The essayist for TAL went on to interview a boy named D’vondre Woodward who used the money to transition out of job selling cocaine to a job doing maintenance at a nearby Chevron oil factory.
Of course, there’s something that just doesn’t seem right about finding people who commit crimes and then rewarding them for it. Morally, it doesn’t seem right at all. Still, the reduction in crime appears to have been real…so far, anyway. Perhaps, too, the people going into the program actually want to try to change their lives. $1,000 per month is good, but they could be making a lot more selling drugs. One of the ‘graduates’ of the program notes that it isn’t exactly easy street for the participants:
Rohnell Robinson, a four-year ONS fellow, gushes about the places he’s visited with Boggan’s help—Cowboys Stadium, Dubai—but he confesses that being a part of ONS can be a sort of purgatory where the cops still think you’re a thug and your friends think you may be a narc. “It’s like you gotta protect yourself two times.” The worst part, he says, is “the hate you get coming from your peers, the people you grew up with and who are living on the other side of the fence.” Eric Welch [another participant,] who was shot two more times after joining ONS, has since moved to Florida.
The first thing I thought of when I heard this story was: “You have to be kidding.”
The second thing was: “This kind of reminds me of those so-called gun ‘buy-back’ programs. It’ll probably work just as well.”
The third thing was: “Except…if participants are the ones who are killing people…well, targeting people one way or another is the way to stop this kind of violence.”
No doubt Mr. Boggan would be astonished to learn that he’s essentially taking an old NRA slogan to its logical conclusion. Maybe not, though. Boggan himself appears to have approached the issue from a rather pragmatic perspective, as have other politicians in Richmond:
[Richmond] Councilman Tom Butt, a self-described champion of gun control, voted against a resolution that would have studied options for new gun regulation. California already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, he says, but “it’s not enough. Regardless of what kind of gun laws you have, people who really want to have a gun are going to find one.”
Seven years ago, Butt became an early supporter of a local anti-violence strategy that sidesteps guns entirely and focuses instead on the people who use them. “Illegal guns have always found their way into urban communities by some mechanism,” says DeVone Boggan, the director of neighborhood safety in the Richmond mayor’s office. “We need to find a way to get these young men not to pick these guns up, to develop the mindset that ‘I’m not going to deal with conflict by using a gun.’”
Can this program scale? Will it work in the long run? I don’t know. Richmond’s population is only 107,571, after all. But there are a lot of mid-sized cities like it (one article notes that city officials from Erie, Pennsylvania, are studying Richmond’s program.) For a resource-poor city with a terrible crime problem, it’s at least a start. If nothing else, it’s better than wasting time passing more gun control laws that will be singularly ineffective at anything other than undermining the Constitutional rights of everyone.
DISCLAIMER: The above is an opinion piece; it is not legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship in any sense. If you need legal advice in any matter, you are strongly urged to hire and consult your own counsel. This post is entirely my own, and does not represent the positions, opinions, or strategies of my firm or clients.